One of India’s most recognised artists, known for his bold and vibrant imagery, M F Husain was the face of Indian art and remains one of its more influential and revered modernists. A maverick who never deterred from experimenting with medium and theme, he believed in bending rules through his art and otherwise. On his 107th birth anniversary on Saturday (September 17) we look at his enduring legacy and his unorthodox art and life.
The early years of the artist
Born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, into a middle-class Muslim family, Husain was not even two years old when his mother Zainab passed away. He was extremely close to his grandfather, Abdul, but his interest in art did not initially receive support from his father Fida, who worked at the Indore-Malwa textile mill.
Growing up in Indore, for the young Husain art was a means to express himself. He would often cycle to the surrounding countryside of Indore to paint landscapes. During one such trip, he met the renowned painter N S Bendre, who recognised his talent and suggested to his father that Husain should be given formal art training.
During his brief academic stint at the Lalitkala Sansthan art college in Indore, Husain realised he could compete with those ahead of him in college. In the 1930s, he arrived in Mumbai, and famously spent his initial years in the city making a living as a cinema-hoarding painter who was paid four or six annas (about 25-36 paise) per square foot.
After his wedding, the need to provide for his family led Husain to leave the job of a painter of hoardings and to join a furniture shop called Fantasy. He received a steady monthly income of Rs 25 here, and designed nursery furniture and wooden toys for children.
The evolution of his oeuvre
Though Husain was reportedly offered admission into Mumbai’s JJ School of Art in the mid 1930s, he was unable to join the famed institution. He sold artworks directly to collectors for modest amounts, and in 1947, he held his first major public exhibition, when he showed the painting ‘Sunehra Sansar’ at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society.
That same year, at the behest of artist Francis Newton Souza, he became one of the founding members of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, formed with an aim to establish a distinct artistic vocabulary for independent India. Though several members of the collective went abroad — Souza went to London and Syed Haider Raza to Paris — it remained one of India’s most significant groupings of artists.
In the years that followed, Husain became one of the most famous faces of Indian art, with several exhibitions across India, and an exhibition in China in 1951, following which he travelled to Europe and the United States.
From early on, he successfully merged modernity and tradition, taking inspiration from diverse sources, from cubism to temple sculptures, miniatures and the colours of Rajasthan, among others. Known for bold colours and thick brush strokes, his recurring subjects ranged from horses to lamps to deities, and epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. In seminal works such as ‘Between the Spider and the Lamp’ (1956) and ‘Zameen’ (1954), he painted the India he saw around him.
The 1970s saw Husain paint a series on the Mahabharata, which was showcased at the Sao Paulo Biennial, and a Sufi series that was exhibited at the Pundole Gallery in Mumbai in 1978. The period also saw him produce memorable paintings of Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, and a frame in which famed Urdu poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, and Muhammad Iqbal shared space.
The constant pushing of boundaries
Described as the “Picasso of India” by the prestigious Forbes magazine for his artistic calibre and contributions towards Indian art, the prolific artist forged a distinct path for his art. While his subjects were constantly changing, so were the mediums. The expanse ranged from small paper works to gigantic murals.
He tried his hand in printmaking and photography as well as filmmaking, from the experimental ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’ (1967) to the more commercial Madhuri-Dixit starrer ‘Gaja Gamini’ (2000).
In his personal life, too, he was unpredictable. While several acquaintances recall how he would impromptu create a work with whatever material was available, he also enjoyed interacting with his audience. He was known for his penchant for high-end fast cars like Ferrari, at other times he walked barefoot.
After some of Husain’s works, including depictions of Hindi deities, triggered protests and controversy, the painter went into self-imposed exile from 2006. In 2010, a year before he passed away, Husain, then 95 years old, accepted the citizenship of Qatar.
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